In the late sixties, when former HSBC Chairman David Eldon joined the British bank, it was a bit like signing up for the Army. You raised your hand for a management training program and went where the bank sent you, no matter how far from home.
Eldon, 66, joined HSBC's International Managers Programme in 1968 and spent most of the next 37 years in the Middle East and Hong Kong, eventually overseeing 30,000 employees. He learned to adapt to the country in which he was living, always remembering he was a guest and needed to adhere to their rules, not his.
One of the most important rules in China, is networking, or "guanxi," Eldon told FINS. But a big Rolodex isn't as good as one with fewer names and deeper connections.
Eldon retired from HSBC in 2005, then returned as chairman of HSBC Bank Middle East. He is also a senior advisor to PricewaterhouseCoopers, a member of the Korean Presidential Council on National Competitiveness and was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005.
FINS talked to Eldon about not having a mentor, having a blog, and the importance of titles.
Julie Steinberg: You began your career in banking in the Middle East. What attracted you to Asia, and Hong Kong specifically, in 1979?
David Eldon: When I started with the bank in 1968, I joined a program that still exists today referred to as the International Managers Programme. This meant that you would agree to be available to go to whichever country or job that the bank sent you. In return, the Bank would ensure that you were properly looked after.
I went to Asia because it was where I was sent. Not a particularly romantic answer, but the bank wanted to broaden my geographic experience. Opportunities in those days were restricted to the Middle and Far East but someone on the program today, for example, could do two years in Thailand, followed by a couple in Brazil, two more maybe in Saudi Arabia then back to Hong Kong and so on. It is not a lifestyle that everyone wants, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
JS: When did you have your first big career break?
DE: Probably following my stint as manager of special projects. I was working directly for the general manager in charge of international (and latterly the group chairman). I had come in from the Middle East and was really an unknown quantity as far as HSBC was concerned. He took a chance on my abilities by sending me to run the Mongkok District [in Hong Kong] against quite a lot of opposition (and, naturally, jealousy). I was relatively junior put into a senior position.
JS: What were your main responsibilities when you were chairman?
DE: I considered my main responsibilities as chairman to be management of the board, being responsible to my shareholders and my staff, and ensuring that the board's policies were correctly implemented. Feedback to the board was also critical.
JS: Are there certain workplace/cultural norms you followed that were specific to moving up the ladder in Asia?
DE: If you are going to embark on an international career, always remember two things.
You are a guest in the country in which you live if it is not your own. Follow their rules - not yours. If you don't like the rules, don't go there.
What works in your home environment, for example being confrontational or blunt in the case of a Western environment, does not necessarily work in an Asian environment. Take the time and trouble to understand your surroundings. This is not the same as blindly accepting what you are told, but understand through discussion, immersion, the community and, if you can, the language.
JS: How important were mentors and sponsors to your career?
DE: I don't know whether I fall into the category of "usual" or "unusual." I have never had a mentor or a sponsor, although interestingly I am a mentor to a few people myself. My upbringing was in relative solitude and I have always been comfortable making my own way. Then if I make a mistake I only have myself to blame. If that sounds rather "soulful" or distressing, it shouldn't be taken that way. It suited me and I could give you more detail as to why it was this way, but maybe that's for my book!
Having said that, there have been a couple of people who have had an impact on my working life as "examples." I have admired but I never spoken to them about it as in using them as mentors or had them as sponsors.
JS: What were some of the most exciting and rewarding experiences you faced in your time at the bank?
DE: On reflection, being in the Middle East in the 1960s and early 1970s while it was still old and new; while it still had a Lawrence of Arabia romanticism about it.
Undertaking a currency change in the Oman in 1970 when I was part of a team that travelled into the interior of Oman with armed troops and tin boxes of money exchanging old Indian rupees for the new currency.
Lending money to clients that subsequently saw them become successful - and especially those who started off as small clients.
JS: Networking is important everywhere, but did you find it especially crucial in Asia, given that personal relationships drive much of business?
DE: There is no doubt that networking is important everywhere. It is interesting that networking, or "guanxi" in China, is on the top of everyone's "must do" list. To be honest, there is a dividing line that sometimes needs to be better understood between "networking" and "conflict."
You will rarely succeed in business unless you are prepared to get to know people, but you need to take it further than that. Having 1000 names on your Rolodex because you have met them twice at a party will not be as effective as having 200 people you can pick up a phone to and they instantly know who you are.
JS: Do you have any advice on how to move up the career ladder?
DE: I never forgot my background. I started from humble beginnings and I don't believe I changed in my outlook. Given the experiences I have had, I can as easily speak to a head of state as I can to the office cleaner. I was born "David" and I will die "David." Whatever "titles" come in between are temporary, but sadly I know too many people who, once they have been called Chairman, adopt a different persona.
I got things done through people. Although I was not academically stupid (I took and passed all my professional examinations), I have always recognized people can do things better than I can. I would use their talent and that of other people to build a structure around which we could all work. I would prefer to be surrounded by people better than me than by the other sort. And I would always make sure they got the appropriate credit.
Although inwardly ambitious, I never made it particularly public. My overriding aim was to get on with the job in hand and do it to the best of my ability without thinking too much about the next move - and plotting to get there. Do that, and you lose focus.
I would never ask anyone to take on a job without explaining why I was asking them, and it would never be something that I would not be prepared to do myself.
JS: What are your duties at HSBC (and elsewhere) now?
DE: Having retired from HSBC in 2005 I returned this year as chairman of HSBC Bank Middle East. It is a non-executive role. I also do other things, and you would have to read "about me" on my blog to find out.
JS: HSBC announced plans to eliminate 30,000 positions by 2013, joining a host of other banks seeking to streamline operations and reduce costs. However, the company still intends to hire thousands in emerging markets over the next several years. Where do you expect -- and where would you like to see -- this growth to take place?
DE: That is a question for the current executive management of HSBC. I think however that the future emphasis is clear from the way in which your question is worded. Emerging markets, particularly those of Asia and Latin America would seem to be where growth prospects are most likely.
JS: Are there certain practice areas, such as private banking, where you would focus the bank's energies?
DE: From my perspective HSBC is a commercial bank first and foremost that has expertise in trade, payments and cash management and other similar sectors - of which private banking is an important part.
JS: Given the new government regulations for the banking industry in Britain, do you think the company should shift its headquarters to Hong Kong?
DE: Whilst I, from an historic and emotional point of view would love to see the bank headquartered back in Hong Kong, there are some realities of life that need to be faced. I do know that senior management of HSBC keeps this matter under review periodically, but Hong Kong would need to make a very compelling case for the bank to consider it seriously.
JS: Do you believe that working keeps you young?
DE: Define young! Everyone is different. I know people who don't want to work beyond 50 or 55 and who are very happy not doing so - and who through their lifestyle remain young. I keep working because I enjoy what I do, believe that I can add something to the organizations I do work for, and am very conscious of the fact that I will not be able to go on forever. Being "young" is a state of mind.
Write to Julie Steinberg at Julie.Steinberg@dowjones.com